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Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting

4 p.m.

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Richard): My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister on the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. The Statement is as follows:

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    "The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group now has delegated power to invoke a number of specified measures, if the group decides these would further the process of transition and respect for human rights in Nigeria. These include visa restrictions, withdrawal of military attaches, the cessation of military training, an embargo on the export of arms and the downgrading of diplomatic missions and cultural links.

    "In addition, after 1st October 1998, the action group will assess whether Nigeria has satisfactorily completed its transition programme. If this assessment is negative, Heads of Government will consider Nigeria's expulsion from the Commonwealth and the introduction of further measures, such as a mandatory oil embargo.

    "I believe these measures, taken together, send a clear and strong message to the Nigerian Government from all the members of the Commonwealth: if they do not improve substantially their respect for human rights and move back to democracy, they face severe sanctions.

    "Heads of Government strongly condemned the military coup in Sierra Leone and decided to continue the suspension of the military regime from Commonwealth meetings. We also called for the immediate reinstatement of President Kabbah, the legitimate Head of State, whom I welcomed to the meeting as my special guest.

    "A final communique reflecting our discussions was issued at the end of our meeting yesterday morning. Copies of this and the economic declaration are available in the Library of the House.

    "In conclusion, I am pleased to report to the House that there was a remarkable degree of agreement at Edinburgh on both economic and political questions. Many Heads said that it was the most harmonious CHOGM for many years. I believe that the Commonwealth is needed now more than ever. It bridges the gap between developed and developing and provides a forum for co-operation and joint endeavour; and it provides a strong moral lead in a world where basic human rights are too often under threat.

    "I also believe that this CHOGM was a success. The Commonwealth has a new focus on economic issues. It is showing the rest of the world the way on environmental problems such as climate change. It is setting an example in the field of human rights--our action on Nigeria makes clear that the Commonwealth will not tolerate undemocratic behaviour and human rights abuses among its ranks.

    "At Edinburgh, my fellow Heads of Government and I began a process of change to prepare the Commonwealth to face the challenges of the 21st century. A renewed Commonwealth will be a force for good in the world. I look forward to this process being taken further before our next meeting in South Africa in 1999."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

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4.9 p.m.

Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, I am sure that the whole House is grateful to the Lord Privy Seal for repeating the Statement with his usual clarity and deliberation. There is very much in the Statement that noble Lords on this side of the House welcome, not least the apparent emphasis on the respect in which the Queen is held by the Commonwealth. We also welcome unreservedly the return of Fiji to Commonwealth ranks. We are particularly pleased that the Statement underlines the importance of economic issues and free trade. All of us know in our heart of hearts that trade rather than aid is usually more effective. Equally, we understand that if that is to work the rich countries, perhaps more than others, must sign up to the principles of access to their own markets by countries of the third world. We also welcome the South Asia Regional Fund and the Commonwealth Development Corporation's new relationship with the private sector. Equally, we are pleased to see what the Statement says about the message to the Kyoto Climate Change Conference. We also welcome the reaffirmation of the Harare principles.

The Commonwealth has always been held to be important in the rhetoric of governments of both parties. I do not emphatically make a partisan point when I say that sometimes it is perhaps more undervalued than the rhetoric suggests, as evidenced by the priorities in policy. I believe that the matters I have mentioned are a constructive move on the part of the Government, and we welcome them.

However, the Lord Privy Seal might regard my response as uncharacteristic if I did not carp a little. There is not a great deal that is new in what the Lord Privy Seal has reported to the House. That is very different from the Prime Minister's rhetoric. It is clear from the speech of the Prime Minister that the word "new" was an integral part of his rhetoric in Edinburgh as it has been since well before the general election. He has said:

    "There is a new British identity: modern, enterprising, outward, open and compassionate . . . the new Britain is a meritocracy where we break down the barriers of class, race and religion",
etc., etc. One can compare this with the wording of the Labour manifesto:

    "New Labour. Because Britain deserves better . . . I believe Britain can and must be better . . . We will modernise Britain . . . Under the Conservatives Britain's influence has waned . . . The tragedy of the Conservative years has been a squandering of Britain's assets and the loss of Britain's influence",
etc., etc. I admit to the Lord Privy Seal that that is entirely consistent. However, I ask the Lord Privy Seal to speculate and tell us what has happened in the past six months since 1st May when this remarkable transformation from a weakened and declining influence to a modern and enterprising power has taken place. If the Lord Privy Seal says that it is due entirely to the rhetoric of the Government I shall beg to differ from that diagnosis. I hope that he will be able to give a more convincing explanation than the one that I have just suggested.

I should like to put a number of questions to the Lord Privy Seal. First, is he disappointed that in spite of the recognition of the benefits of free trade that I have

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clearly welcomed this afternoon there is no explicit endorsement of a new round of trade negotiations? Can he elaborate upon that? Can one look forward to something more concrete than that which is contained in the Statement? Secondly, in that context will the Government ensure that any transitional measures that may flow from these initiatives will not transmogrify themselves into protectionist measures, their transitional element somehow becoming lost in the protectionist instincts which all too lightly come out in initiatives of this kind? Thirdly, can the Lord Privy Seal inform the House how far the criteria to be used to judge Nigeria's return to the fold will apply also to other Commonwealth countries? Are we on the way to the achievement of a common standard for all countries? If the answer to that question is yes, how will that standard be applied?

The final part of the Statement expressly says that the conference was a huge success. I do not believe that it can be judged to be a signal success in every respect--perhaps not nearly as much as the Statement implies. Before it began one heard many fine words about the Government's good intentions. Unfortunately, that is becoming a depressingly familiar pattern. Yet again, words have not been matched by the application of appropriate deeds that are consistent with the rhetoric. I say "appropriate" because regrettably the conference was marred by a certain high-handedness on the part of the British Government, perhaps building on the no doubt invigorating experience of the Foreign Secretary in India. I do not wish to teach my grandmother to suck eggs. However, it must be obvious to the Lord Privy Seal that government-to-government meetings should be approached with due humility and a readiness to listen. Clearly, what happened in Edinburgh was something very different. It began with the Prime Minister's somewhat curious boast that he would create a new Commonwealth for the 21st century and the unedifying spectacle of the leaders of so many countries being treated to what was, frankly, a rather tawdry promotional video for Britain and New Labour. Would it not have been more tactful to remember that it was a Commonwealth Conference and not a Labour Party promotional campaign?

The conference ended with the Prime Minister being forced into another humiliating apology for the behaviour of his spin doctors who had, we are told, offended Commonwealth leaders by giving more attention to British domestic affairs than those of the Commonwealth in their press briefings and disclosing the contents of confidential bilateral talks between heads of government. It was depressing to hear representatives of some of this country's oldest and firmest friends in the Commonwealth complaining about the patronising and arrogant attitude of Britain. It does not altogether surprise us in our diagnosis of the shortcomings of this Government. Unfortunately, we have had to endure it since 1st May. It is all very well for the Prime Minister to admit that the Government got it wrong. I hope that in future he will pay greater attention to ensuring that the important details are got right and that less time is spent polishing the new Labour image.

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The word "family" is most usually used in conjunction with "Commonwealth". Does the Lord Privy Seal accept that at successful family gatherings individual members of the family promote their own domestic agendas with the greatest restraint? This sad episode is yet another example of much good emerging from the Commonwealth Conference being in the end marred by the Government's incompetence born of inexperience.

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